Tuesday 23 November 2010

Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. Two Women separated by one dance.

Amazing Spider-Man #59, Mary Jane dances - her first ever appearance on the coverLennon or McCartney? Sheep or cows? Red or blue? It's a choice that at some point in our lives all men must make.

But there's one choice we're not forced to make.


Because it doesn't matter.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to make it anyway.

That choice is simple. Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson?

Now, it should be said the natural girlfriend for Peter Parker was always Betty Brant. Being duller and less glamorous than the other two, it always made more sense for the loser-figure Parker to date her. It never made sense for him to be dating beautiful glamorous sex-bombs. Still it was comic books, it was Stan Lee, it was John Romita and so we got a defiance of all logic to match the characters' defiance of gravity.

Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, dance-off, John RomitaReading through the Spider-Man Essentials, several years back, it was a genuine shock to see how the characters were when they first appeared. Both of them seemed like they might be mentally ill. Gwen Stacy, as well as looking vaguely evil, seemed totally obsessed with Peter Parker. Everything she said was about him. Everything she thought was about him. Everything she did was about him.

Mary Jane, on the other hand, seemed to be thinking about everything but Peter Parker, seeing him as a football she could either pick up or leave lying around as she saw fit. She was a strange character, the living embodiment of the Swinging 60s but a woman to whom nothing at all seemed to matter.

While Gwen Stacy's head was filled with endlessly plotting thought-balloons and concerns. Mary Jane had no thought-balloons at all. It was as though she was an empty shell or simply had thoughts she had no intention of sharing with anyone, including herself - a woman in denial of even her own inner being. The differences meant a spiritual conflict was inevitable and, in the very early days, Gwen and MJ were involved in a kind of Cold War to prove who could be the hottest chick in New York. For a spell, amazingly, Gwen Stacy came out on top.

But then it all started to go wrong, as MJ continued being the life and soul of the party while Gwen slowly deteriorated into the dull, earnest limpet that prompted a young Gerry Conway to kill her off.

On the other hand, as Mary Jane went along she simply got nastier, metamorphosing into a total bitch who took the fact her boyfriend was in hospital, from a drugs overdose, as her cue to come on to his flatmate at every opportunity. All the more amazing then that she ended up becoming a proper love interest for Peter Parker, and at no point did the transition seem forced.

I have to admit I've always preferred Mary Jane. I've got a feeling the reason why's to be found in the events of Amazing Spider-Man issue #59, in which Mary Jane becomes a dancer at the Kingpin's club, while Gwen's dad is hypnotised into committing a crime by that self-same villain. Both women are dragged into a super-villain's machinations, one by her sense of freedom, the other by her sense of duty. This is the point. Despite Gwen's early status as Hot Dancing Chick TM, Mary Jane's role in this issue is one Gwen could never have played because she was never free. She always existed only in relation to other people, whether it be Peter Parker or her father.

Mary Jane, on the other hand, had from day one demonstrated she had a life independent of anyone, including possibly herself. Gwen Stacy never had a life beyond Peter Parker and her father, never said anything that didn't involve them, never had a thought that didn't involve them. It meant that, for all her emoting and agonising, she could never be as three dimensional as the determinedly two dimensional Mary Jane. Without Peter Parker, without her father, there was nothing left of her. She'd simply have vanished into the ether, a never-even noticed breeze - while, without other people, Mary Jane would probably have spent all eternity dancing away on that front cover, oblivious to everything but herself. It made her more self-obsessed but, to be self-obsessed, you must first have a sense of self, and to have a sense of self is to exist. Mary Jane had it. Gwen Stacy didn't.


Kid said...


Aaron said...

The Mary Jane in the movies was my least favourite thing about it -- having an emoting, guilt-tripping MJ was way wrong, it was like they got her personality mixed up with Miss Brant. Nice post, it really explains the lasting appeal of the vivacious Miss Watson, and why Gwen Stacey was expendable Goblin-fodder. Though she was put to good use in Marvels.

R. W. Watkins said...

Gwen Stacy was self-evident or self-defining--there were no dark undertones or hidden narratives. But do you want my honest-to-Allah take on Mary Jane Watson? For my money, the young woman had been an abused child--possibly an incest victim--from a considerably dysfunctional family. She worked as a go-go (and possibly 'exotic') dancer and moonlighted as a whore. She smoked cigarettes, and had a fleeting, flakey relationship with nearly everyone--a common characteristic of incest victims. I gleaned this view of her from merely the '60s and early '70s comics, and did not reference any of the apocryphal origin tales and redactional retellings of the post-1970s. I think Lee and Ditko introduced her as a 'mystery girl' in much the same spirit as they introduced the Green Goblin a few issues prior. She was a character they could play around with, and they weren't exactly sure where she was headed. They may have had a mind to create a nefarious villain out of her. I've been thinking of writing an essay on this subject for The Comics Decoder, incidently.

Steve said...

Clearly we have similar minds.

I've always assumed, from reading the 1960s tales, that Mary Jane took drugs (let's face it, the clue's in the name) and that she was working as a prostitute. The prostitution thing certainly leaps to mind in one particular scene in issue #65, where she's hanging round on a street corner at night for no noticeable reason.

It's also clear that there was something dark in her background. Just where were her parents and why was she so determined to be up all the time? I'd always assumed her parents were either dead or had abandoned her.

R. W. Watkins said...

Ah, yes! The notorious scene from #65, with Mary Jane standing in revealing dress, Pam Courson curls and fishnet stockings affront the dubious 'men's club' (which, to the best of my knowledge, went mysteriously unnamed throughout its entire existence in the '60s tales). One wonders what members like Jolly Jonah, Norman Osborn and Capt Stacy may have been getting up to with her in hotel rooms.

And have your ever noticed the cigarette pack and book of matches affront her on the dashboard of Harry's car in #61, just after Harry's picked her up out of nowhere on a street at twilight?

She always seemed to be walking out of nowhere on a nocturnal or evening street (e.g., last page of #62). I hope the johns weren't too rough on the poor young lady....

Gwen, on the other hand, was most definitely still a virgin. She displayed all the symbols--blonde hair, policeman's daughter, constant weeping--especially after Romita and Kane took over the drawing duty. (Ditko drew her like he's drawn all his blondes over the years: sly, vain, and a little vicious. Ditko, for all intents and purposes, has been drawing the same blonde woman over and over for decades. 'Gwen' was the blonde star of all his '70s horror/suspense tales for Charlton Comics. I've often wondered who the blonde girl was who broke his heart early in life....) She may have had a bit of a (non-physical) Elektra complex, but other than that, she was an all-around symbol of complete purity--and an obvious choice for snuffing come 1973.

As a result, some of those apocryphal retellings of Gwen's history that have been published over the past twenty years are difficult for older fans to take in. If Norman Osborn had intended on raping and impregnating any young woman in the lead-up to his death, it would obviously have been the one to whom he had had the most exposure: Harry's then-girlfriend, that embarrassing hipcat whore who was hurting and corrupting his vulnerable soft-shell son, Mary Jane Watson.

Doc Thompson said...

Even at age nine or ten this Mary Jane cover is memmorable.Was Spider Man there too ?Hadn't notice.
And Marvel thinks undoing her marrage to Parker was a good idea.Duhhhhhhhhhh.No.Superduhhhhhhhhhhh.No.Superduperduhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh to infinity and beyond.
Spider crap Spider crap.all the print now is Spider Crap.Look out Marvels printing more Spider Crap

Steve W. said...

I take it you're not a big fan of the current Spider-Man tales. :)

MormonYoYoMan@gmail.com said...

This is why the Spider-Man comic strip is where I turn for my 1965 Spider-Man fixes.

If I want pre-Romita Spidey, I almost always turn to the Lee/Ditko days and the real and true girl (she was a girl then) for Peter: Betty Brant.

These things said, I have to wonder if current comic book writers can even comprehend, much less write, a happy marriage? The comic strip successfully blends soap opera & heroics (often focusing on one over the other, depending on what connects with the current audience tastes) and it may be because Stan Lee is one of the few working comics writers (along with his assistants) who HAS a successful marriage, and has had one for a very long time.

Steve W. said...

Hi, Grandpa Chet.

I think it's basically that, in terms of fiction, an unhappy relationship generates more potential for melodrama than a happy one, and comicbook writers therefore tend to gravitate towards writing about things going wrong.